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    Spotlight on Celine Song: Director of Oscar Nominated ‘Past Lives

    Hailed as one of the best films of 2023, A24’s Past Lives follows two childhood sweethearts, Nora and Hae Sung, who are torn apart when Nora’s family emigrates from South Korea, going through the ebb and flows of life until they fortuitously meet again 20 years later. The indie film is making waves this award season, capturing the hearts of audiences and critics alike with its understated finesse and profound realism. 

    Already taking home the Gotham Award for Best Feature, it’s also nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay at the 2024 Oscars.

    First-time director Celine Song helms this testament to thoughtful, relatable storytelling, pulling from her own fateful life experiences to direct the semi-autobiographical tale.

    With such careful attention to detail, from casting down to stark encapsulations of city settings through crisp cinematography (the Brooklyn waterfront has never seemed more romantic), it’s hard to believe this is Song’s first film.

    Breaking into the creative scene

    Originally from South Korea, Song and her artist parents moved to Markham, Ontario, Canada when she was 12. Back in Korea, according to Vulture, her father, a writer-director like his daughter, “is a quiet legend in Korean cinema,” giving major actors pivotal breaks into the industry, including Parasite lead Song Kang-ho.

    Song studied psychology as a Queen’s University undergraduate, with hopes of becoming a therapist. She then obtained her MFA in playwriting from Columbia University in New York City, where she currently resides with her husband (and fellow playwright) Justin Kuritzkes. 

    Notable off-Broadway works, leading up to Song’s pivot to the big screen, include ‘Endlings’ and a Sims 4 adaptation of Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’. 

    Creating Past Lives

    Burning, slow, and heartbreaking — just a few words to describe Song’s debut cinematic exploration of fate (known as in yun in Korean), love, and the passage of time.

    Speaking with the British Academy Film Award (BAFTA) about how her breakthrough film came about, Song says, “Past Lives is a movie that I was inspired by this moment in my life that actually happened, where I found myself sitting in this bar in East Village in New York City, sitting between my childhood sweetheart who had come to visit me from Korea [and] my husband that I live with in New York City. And while I was sitting translating between these two men, I actually felt like beyond translating between two languages and two cultures, I also was translating between two parts of my own self.”

    This moment in time piqued the storyteller’s interest, inspiring her to think, “‘Oh, maybe this is a story I can tell. Maybe this is a thing I can make a film about.’”

    But to tell such a deeply personal and moving narrative, you need a talented cast. 

    Song found her main characters’ self-described “soul matches” in Greta Lee (as Lenora “ Nora” Moon) and Teo Yoo (as Hae Sung), who both propel the film to excellence with their ability to express 100 emotions without ever saying a word. John Magaro rounds out the cast, in the role of Arthur, Nora’s American husband.

    The true magic of Past Lives is the way it renders audiences speechless, as they sit astonished by the universality of the film’s premise, even if they haven’t experienced the same expansive journey Nora and Hae Sung have been on. 

    Just how much does our past reflect and dictate our future — or is it all in yun (fate)?

    During a late-night chat with her future husband at a writers’ retreat in Montauk, Nora explains the concept of in yun. 

    “It's an In-Yun if two strangers even walk by each other in the street and their clothes accidentally brush. Because it means there must have been something between them in their past lives.”

    It’s something we can all relate to in a way… and that’s what Song was banking on, not only when writing her screenplay, but also when directing her cast.

    Bringing in yun/inyeon to life

    To create a lived-in modern romance drama, Lee and Yoo weren’t allowed to physically touch during rehearsals until the exact moment their characters did, in Madison Square Park. 

    “It becomes this really big, kind of cosmic thing to create this weird emotion of longing for each other,” says Yoo, speaking with The Hollywood Reporter (THR). “That created a certain type of chemistry and this wonderful tension on film.”

    The production also had to navigate COVID-19 restrictions, which gave the production more time to get fully acclimated with Song’s vision.

    Song also kept the two leading men apart until cameras were rolling, with Lee serving as a conduit, both onscreen and off.

    “There’s timing and budget constraints, so keeping two actors apart is not an easy thing,” Magaro says to THR. “But we had such an amazing crew who really believed in Celine’s vision and were willing to go the extra distance to make things like that happen.”

    Their awkward first meeting makes the final cut, further adding to Song’s dazzling ability to elicit real responses from her dedicated cast.

    When talking to Variety, Lee says that each emotionally charged scene boiled down to Song’s script.

    “There might be an assumption because it was so collaborative that we were finding things in the moment or just being present for each other. But if you read the script, it is incredibly surgical and precise in what it’s asking for.”

    This subtle calculation sets Song miles ahead of contemporary directors and is one we can hope to see from other up-and-coming female filmmakers.

    Mariah Flores

    Mariah Flores is a journalist and content writer with experience as a News Reporter at LinkedIn News.

    February 23, 2024

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